The N.C. Community College System, following the abrupt departure of fledgling former President James C. “Jimmie” Williamson, is under new leadership that could better partnerships between community colleges and the University of North Carolina System.   

Peter Hans, who in May became president of the N.C. Community College System, is a former member of both the NCCCS and UNC governing boards. That experience presents an opportunity for Hans to not only lead the state’s 58 colleges, but also to become an ambassador between the two systems. 

Hans served on the State Board of Community Colleges from 1997 to 2003 and was elected to the UNC Board of Governors in 2003. He sat on that board for 11 years and was elected chair from 2012 to 2014. A former U.S. Senate policy advisor and political consultant, Hans counseled UNC System President Margaret Spellings from 2016 to 2018 on issues including technology, strategic planning, and K-12 education.  

On July 31, Hans sat down with Carolina Journal Associate Editor Kari Travis to talk apprenticeships, nontraditional education, transparency, and opportunities to improve relationships and collaboration between UNC and NCCCS.   

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.   

KT: What’s your vision for the system over the next couple years?  

PH: The focus of the legislature has been on short-term workforce training. This sounds like a dry issue, but it really is important for the [funding] between our traditional academic programs and the vocational education or continuing education programs. If we want to close the skills gap for employers, if we want to upgrade job skills for North Carolinians, if we want to address the urban/rural divide. … it’s through short-term workforce training. I think this is going to be more important as time goes by and the economy, technology, and society change. Education is going to be shorter in duration, and it’s going to be focused on career building skills that only the community colleges can meet. The legislature recognized this and appropriated approximately $15 million towards that goal. Part of it was recurring and part non-recurring. We’ll be working with them during the long session to make sure that [money] is seen through to success.

KT: Given your long history working in the UNC system, did you   anticipate moving to community colleges?

PH: No. (Laughs) I started on the State Board of Community Colleges in 1997, [where I spent six years]. That was probably too young to be on the board, but it was a useful perspective. Then, after 12 years on the University of North Carolina’s Board of Governors and two years working with UNC President Margaret Spellings, this opportunity arose. There are about 750,000 students enrolled in [our 58] community colleges. That’s a huge number, and [I have] the opportunity to help them. Who could ask for more than that?

KT: How is the role and atmosphere different than UNC?

PH: There are certain similarities between both system offices, but there is a big gap in resources between the UNC and community college systems. That’s historical. I’m obviously a product of UNC, a supporter of UNC, and I think the state’s investment in that university system is a very good one. I would also argue the investment in the community college system has been a wise one. But if the state really is interested in increasing educational attainment — if they want to address the skills gap, the rural/urban divide, the socioeconomic mobility question — it’s going to happen through the community college in terms of reaching as many people as quickly as possible.

KT: What roles do apprenticeships play in the system, and how do you plan to expand them?

PH: The N.C. Apprenticeship Program used to be at the N.C. Department of Labor, but moved here November 2017. . . I want to see if we can grow that program. There are about 6,300 people in it right now, but I think there’s an opportunity to look at it a little differently and make it an industry and business-led effort that could increase the number of North Carolinians who take advantage of that opportunity.

There’s also [an opportunity called] work-based learning. . . It involves youth apprenticeships for [high schoolers] who want that combination of classroom instruction and on-the-job training. It basically exposes students to potential career paths, then advises them once they decide “I’m interested in pursuing this.” It tells them, “OK, this is what you need to do [to be successful].” I think that holds a lot of potential because we’ve got a number of people who aren’t quite sure what they want to do.

KT: Do you think it will be difficult to get buy-in from American companies not used to offering apprenticeships?

Possibly. There is some debate about that. That’s why I think our apprenticeship program must be led by businesses — as opposed to the public sector telling the private sector what it needs to do. I’ve actually started to engage some high-profile CEOs on this very issue to help us look at where we are and where we need to be. … I think there’s a lot of potential apprenticeships based on everything that I know, but I’d rather have that confirmed by a business itself. 

KT: How would you describe the relationship between UNC and NCCCS? What will collaboration look like?

PH: I think the relationship is good. President Spellings, the UNC Board of Governors and the State Board of Community Colleges and I want to take that [relationship] from good to great. Traditionally there have been partnerships — but also a little bit of friction because in some ways we compete for the same pot of state appropriations, which is unfortunate. One year, when I was chair of the UNC board, [the systems] made a joint budget request. The legislature loved that. That may not be possible every year because there’s a lot of moving pieces, but President Spellings and I have talked about how we align more closely.

Right now we’re working on a financial aid study together. We’ve begun some conversations about online learning and what changes. . .at UNC could benefit community colleges. [Student transfers] between UNC and the community colleges need improvement. On our side, we need to be able to help our students better identify what goals they’re trying to pursue, and advise them very carefully on classes that they take as they pursue an associate degree. 

KT: Do you anticipate competition between community colleges and UNC for money to expand nontraditional and technical education?  

PH: Actually, no. I think the relationship is going to be better than ever because President Spellings and the UNC board have a very pro-community college mindset. I certainly have a very pro-UNC mindset, as well. I think the more we can collaborate and cooperate, the better off we will be. … [Y]ou can have lots of dedication at the leadership level, but it’s got to filter all the way through the [community colleges]. So, there will be bumps along the road. Like I said, it’s not easy for UNC to transfer all credits within its own system, much less [transfer credits] coming in from outside schools. Let’s play to our strengths.

KT: Historically, there just doesn’t seem to be a lot of engagement between the community college system and the press, at least as compared to the UNC system. There also tends to be a stigma community colleges are for people who can’t get into better schools. What goals do you have for transparency, for changing that narrative? 

PH: First of all, you absolutely have my commitment to be transparent. Exposure for us would be helpful. One of my goals is to raise awareness of the opportunities at community colleges, because … we’ve got such a broad mission. At one level we have basic skills programs that go all the way from the GED to basic developmental remediation. [We provide imprisoned] folks with literacy training and skills that hopefully they will use productively when they are released. [We provide] workforce training and the college transfer path. And while there may be a stigma on the part of some, I think that’s an outdated attitude. It can be a very smart decision to go to community college, gain your associate degree, and then transfer into a four-year institution. You will certainly do so at a much more affordable cost. The difference is literally tens of thousands of dollars.  

The quality of a number of community college courses and programs are also underrated. I’d put Wake Tech’s program up against just about anybody’s in terms of undergraduate … facilities and instructors.

I think we’ve done a disservice to students to suggest that everyone needs a liberal arts education, [especially considering] the debt. People are talented in different ways and sometimes their skills aren’t completely obvious [without] encouragement or without someone taking interest in them. I think we’ll look back decades from now and say, “Why did we organize [higher education] that way?” I’m not speaking against liberal arts, because it gives you lots of analytical reasoning and critical thinking skills if properly taught. But it’s not the only way to gain those skills. It’s not always the right path for everyone, or for everyone at that point in their life.

I’m blessed to have this leadership opportunity. The chance to help 750,000 North Carolinians advance their goals and achieve their dreams, start a career, start a small business, provide for their families — that’s a wonderful thing to be a very small part of, and I’m going to be a strong advocate for them. I’ll also certainly be a strong supporter of those increased partnerships with universities, with local public schools, private and public universities, and with the business community.